Wednesday, August 31, 2011

Wait...why are you considered a good guy, again?

There's a category of hero in the Marvel Universe who have no redeeming characteristics whatsoever, yet we're told over and over they're good guys – despite the fact they have a clear, real history of actual villainy and no real heroic characteristics.

To be clear as possible: I am not talking about "cool jerk" characters who end up extremely likable because they're badasses that don't take guff and they play dirty, like Wolverine or especially U.S. Agent. Likewise, I'm not some Spanish Inquisition lunatic (the type Superboy-Prime was created to parody) who thinks anyone who so much as uses bad language is a bad person forever.

I'm not saying every character needs to be the same to be considered a hero…but at least give us something, anything, to make a hero someone you can root for.

Remember this moment from the Bloodstone Hunt storyline? Arguing U.S. Agent's not as cool as other heroes because he's got a lot of swagger and doesn't behave himself is a little like arguing Vincent Vega from "Pulp Fiction" was the cooler of the two hitmen because he was more polite.

Besides J. Jonah Jameson, John Walker Lyndh may be the only conservative Republican in the entire Marvel Universe, a guy who, unlike the typically rebellious Marvel heroes, was a patriot of the "love it or leave it" variety who had more in common with Oliver North than Steve Rogers, a guy who was totally okay with being a full-time civil service agent of the government.

Then again…and here's my point…U.S. Agent is a guy who occasionally shows signs he can be redeemed, some of the other people I've mentioned haven't. Take Spectacular Spider-Man 137, where the Latin American assassin Tarantula was trying to kill politically inconvenient asylum seekers in the United States with the consent of the U.S. Government. Good old U.S. Agent showed he had something of a glimmer of a conscience and helped Spider-Man against orders to stop the Tarantula.

Besides, U.S. Agent brought a lot to West Coast Avengers, a book referred to as the "Wackos" because unlike the east coast team they were, like their leader Hawkeye, wilder, prouder and more unorthodox. U.S. Agent was the "heavy" who was all for following the rules, which made him personally unlikeable, but meant he brought a lot to group dynamic and reminded us that Hawkeye only learned how to "turn off" his brashness because of the responsibility of leadership.


Defined by her baldness and desire to have sex with Quasar and the Mighty Thor because they were the only guys good enough for a true goddess like herself, Moondragon's massive sense of superiority, haughtiness and arrogance alienated everyone she met. The primary characteristics defining Moondragon's interactions is a haughty disdain for most of the earthbound Avengers, intrusion on their private thoughts, and her revulsion with human sensuality.

Moondragon was also "religious" and raised by monks, and she had all of the vices but none of the virtues of religious people: a simultaneously depraved and sexually repressed egotist who is sanctimonious but without compassion.

On first joining the team, Moondragon's first acts were to try to undermine Thor's status on the team by wondering why a god like that palled around with lesser beings…an action typical of her winning personality.

Moondragon is, in a historical footnote, the first Avenger to actually turn evil: in Avengers 219-220, she used her mental powers to enslave an entire planet.

Let that sink in: Moondragon was actually the villain of an entire story-arc where she used her mind powers to enslave an entire planet "for the greater good," and then betrayed and lied to her former Avengers team-mates when they came poking around. She then used her powers to make Thor love her and then set him against his friends.

What's more, she even attacked her own father when he realized the full extent of her plans and influence, and she used lethal force and killed him (it didn't take, but that's not the point). The full scope of her intentions beyond Ba-Bani was not known, but she and the mind controlled Thor used creepy language like "bringing order to the universe."

How is it possible after a morality-horizon crossing event like that Moondragon can be taken seriously as a superhero? It absolutely shocks me how much effort has been spent in Solo Avengers and elsewhere trying to "redeem" her.

A lot of time and effort was spent rehabilitating Wanda Maximoff to a whole generation that knows her only as the psycho bitch who pulled "no more mutants," but Wanda was a beloved character that was one of the mainstays and longest serving of the Avengers. On the other hand, I've never met a Moondragon fan in my entire life.

I understand they tried to say the devil made her do it, but when they pulled the "devil made him do it" card when Iron Man had the Kree Supreme Intelligence executed after Operation Galactic Storm, it made sense as that was obviously a real lapse and really unusual, out of character action for Tony. Yet Moondragon betraying her team-mates, and using her mind powers to take over a planet because she knows better was perfectly in character: arrogant, snotty, with an elitist view of her own importance over lesser mortals.

The only other character I can think of where so much effort was expended on explaining away evil actions was Hal Jordan. In fact, I wonder if the "dragon of the Moon spirit made Heather conquer the planet Ba-Banis" explanation in Solo Avengers might have been the inspiration for the Yellow Fear Monster.

I can't think of a single other Avenger that everyone on the team hated - even the otherwise alienating U.S. Agent earned Captain America and "bleedin' heart" Hawkeye's respect eventually. The other Avengers feel the same way about her that the audience does. The single most shocking thing about Moondragon's turn to evil in Avengers 219 -220 is that nobody, except Thor and her father, were all that shocked or surprised...and how none of her former teammates really were choked up or conflicted at all about having to slug her, either.

Oh yeah, and Moondragon is apparently gay now, a fate usually reserved for unimportant, minor-league, unimportant X-Men supporting cast members like Richter, Karma and Shatterstar…despite the fact that 1) Moondragon was revolted by sexuality, and 2) most of her master plans involved getting laid with Quasar or Mighty Thor. As nonsensical as that gay revelation sounds, it basically means Moondragon will never go full villain now as she ought…because how would it look if one of the few Marvel homos is a bad guy?

It is for this reason the now badly "Flanderized" out-and-proud Northstar will never be an interesting or edgy character ever again. The whole point of Northstar is that he was a pompous, pretentious guy who had an intriguing political past as a former Quebecois nationalist-separatist – a terroristic past Northstar was utterly unrepentant about.

Now the only thing anybody knows about someone as cool as Northstar is that he's gay – an incidental and minor element of the character – especially since Northstar had been around for a decade as a regular part of a team book before he outed himself. Northstar is a jerk, but a cool likeable jerk who you love to hate. How does it look if the one well-known Marvel gay character is a jerk…even if that's kind of the whole point? Not looking bad in the press trumps consistent characterization, I guess.


There are some bad guys it's impossible to accept they'd ever reform because they don't have any redeeming characteristics or glimmer of a conscience. Crossbones is evil trash, the Red Skull is a depraved sociopath megalomaniac, and Viper/Madame Hydra is a cold, casually murderous nihilist and terrorist.

Juggernaut is one of those villains. A brutish criminal who happens to be totally unstoppable, Juggernaut is a mean, dumb thug and bully who worships power and does what he feels like: in his mind everybody else is a "pencilnecked geek" and "twerp."

Juggernaut made for a good protagonist during the "8th Day" storyline because unlike the other avatars of the Octessence for whatever reason his original human personality was dominant. He was a goon, but he was a normal person that wasn't a crazy fanatic.

Chuck Austen, that human disaster area, seriously wanted us to believe the Juggernaut would stay a good guy…because he made friends with some mutant kid that thinks he's cool? That's absolutely unbelievable. The only way that story could have been more emotionally manipulative was if it involved cute kittens, good hearted blue collar people, and possibly Forrest Gump.

Of all the low points of his Marianas Trench-like X-Men run, Chuck Austen's "Juggernaut befriends a little kid which makes him turn good" was not the worst, but it definitely was the sloppiest and most sentimental. The X-Writers have for the most part collectively agreed to never discuss anything from his run again, so why is it the Juggernaut reforms bit of crap is still sticking around? And it gets worse: Juggernaut has thus far been in more superteams than any other X-Character other than Wolverine, including not only the X-Men but the renewed Excalibur and Luke Cage incarnation of Thunderbolts.

There are so many villains in the Marvel Universe who have redeeming characteristics and who could possibly reform, that I have no idea why Juggernaut was the one who got this plot, other than the subhuman hominid Chuck Austen fails at everything from writing to walking erect. Batroc the Leaper would be a great choice to reform: a man of honor with lines he would not cross, he once helped Captain America against Mister Hyde when it was obvious Mr. Hyde would have destroyed Manhattan, and once saved Steve Rogers when he was outnumbered and attacked by sharks, for instance.


Wasn't Sunfire raised by an arch-fascist who never forgot Japan's loss in World War II and trained his son to bitterly continue the struggle against his American enemies? I mean, wouldn't that basically make Sunfire a Japanese version of the second Baron Zemo?

Sunfire's major role in stories tends to be abandoning fellow heroes in deadly situations with a forced apology because his responsibilities to Japan outweigh trying to help them fight for their lives.

Macho, proud, arrogant, prejudiced, inflexibly traditionalist, cynical, easily insulted, vengeful and woman-hating, if there's a single redeeming characteristic there that justifies his consideration as a hero, I'd love to hear about it, yet this guy shows up every so often in the X-Books because people remember his short-lived appearance in Giant-Sized X-Men #1. It says something that even among the many snarly, short tempered characters in that book like Wolverine and Thunderbird, Sunfire was distinguished enough to be the only one that couldn't even complete the mission. That's like winning the chode Olympics!

Namor is an arrogant, proud guy who has a legit grudge that leads him to be prejudiced against outsiders, but Namor is occasionally very courageous, fights fair, and has a tremendous personal dignity, regality and other traits that make him a compelling and fascinating antihero. And every so often Namor fought alongside the good guys and been instrumental to their victories over enemies like Doctor Doom and Magneto, whereas every word from Sunfire tends to be "I am sorry, because of my duty to Japan you're on your own."

Look, Marvel – Sunfire's a dick. Why not just admit he's kind of a bad guy? He's basically a mutant version of every single jerk Asian Dad.

Sunfire is an especially tragic victim of the Marvel sliding timescale, since his origin is that he was born a mutant as a result of his parents getting rads thanks to Hiroshima, which caused illnesses that eventually killed them and filled Sunfire with wrath at Americans and Westerners. In the mid to late 1960s, he'd be about college age, the same as the original X-Men...but a lot of time has passed since then. Unlike Baron Zemo II, who kept young as a result of his father's Chemical X, there has, as of yet, been no explanation for Sunfire's longevity.

Sunfire can be born later, even as late as the 1970s assuming his parents were younger than supposed and had children late - and Hiroshima could still have cut their lives tragically short. After all, contrary to Hollywood voodoo science, most people exposed to huge amounts of radiation don't die right away. Some can live for decades before developing serious and lethal illnesses.

Thursday, August 18, 2011

Review: Olaf Stapledon's "Last and First Men"

A lot of people have criticized Stapledon's "Last and First Men" for having no characters, but that doesn't mean it has no characterization, because his characterization is of entire races and peoples. That's the ambitious sweep of Last and First Men, which gives us the entirety of human history, over 2 billion years worth.

Robert Bloch once described horror as a kind of mystery story where God is the detective. If that's true, then "Last and First Men" is a tragedy where the main character is the entire human race. Not just one human race, but several: in the enormous span of time the book glibly and speedily covers, the human race assumes many weird forms, some naturally evolved, but others as the products of genetic engineering (though that term is never used) by the previous race.

Here's my favorite part of the story, and it is not only one of the high points of the book but also typical of its storytelling, and based on this you can determine for yourself if the book is for you.

After the destruction of the earth and mankind moves to Venus, the Seventh Men develop, a carefree, child-like race of graceful fliers with arms that have batlike wings. Of all the races of humans, the Seventh Men emerge as the most sympathetic: the most content, pleasant-spirited…no matter what terror happened, the sheer exultation of flight made them forget their troubles.

After thousands of years, because of an environmental problem, many Seventh Men are born without wings. This crippled race are sent to do hard work, but as they're of a race psychologically made for flight, the flightless crippled race were bitter, angry sorts cooped in labs incapable of happiness, a race of miserly industrialists who clutter up every inch of watery Venus's land space with their factories, who over time vow to eliminate flight as a pointless, dead-end future.

The final conflict is an awful genocide, with the carefree flying men mowed down as they futiley attempt to escape enemies in speedier airplanes with machine guns. The last of the Flying Men were a slave race to jealous masters who ordered all winged infants destroyed.

The defiant rebellion of the last Flying Men ended in tragedy, as related here:

Their leaders, conferring together, saw clearly that the day of Flying Man was done, and that it would be more fitting for a high-souled race to die at once than to drag on in subjection to contemptuous masters. They therefore ordered the population to take part in an act of racial suicide that should at least make death a noble gesture of freedom. The people received the message while they were resting on the stony moorland. A wail of sorrow broke from them. It was checked by the speaker, who bade them strive to see, even on the ground, the beauty of the thing that was to be done. They could not see it; but they knew that if they had the strength to take wing again they would see it clearly, almost as soon as their tired muscles bore them aloft. There was no time to waste, for many were already faint with hunger, and anxious lest they should fail to rise. At the appointed signal the whole population rose into the air with a deep roar of wings. Sorrow was left behind. Even the children, when their mothers explained what was to be done, accepted their fate with zest; though, had they learned of it on the ground, they would have been terror-stricken. The company now flew steadily west, forming themselves into a double file many miles long. The cone of a volcano appeared over the horizon, and rose as they approached. The leaders pressed on towards its ruddy smoke plume; and unflinchingly, couple by couple, the whole multitude darted into its fiery breath and vanished. So ended the career of Flying Man.

In the middle of all this there are some outright fantastic bits of imagery, like for instance, an era when a subspecies of man devolve into baboons, or a weird speciation on the high-gravity of Neptune which forces men to all fours, one primitive race of quadrupedal men who have tusks and another quadruped human race hunts them to extinction for their ivory. The most nightmarish were the Fourth Men, a race of superintelligent, immortal and terrifyingly unsentimental, coldblooded and casually genocidal brains the size of Volkswagens.

Because there are different human species, and the book takes a lengthy "God's-Eye-View," the book does not concern itself with even the character of individual civilizations, but rather the character of entire races.

For instance, the God's Eye View reduces the history of our own race, the First Men, into a story about the conflict between our brutal, animal nature and our better and more civilized instincts. Just when one is about to be prominent, some accident of history results in the other side of our nature taking over.

The person giving us this story is a being of tremendous intellect billions of years in the future. I was absolutely dreading this, because an author's true philosophical and personal views are ironically, never more on display when they try to write a person above human understanding giving a comment on modern times – these beings may be above human limits in thinking, but their writers sure aren't. That is, 19th Century novels with characters of this type always come off laughable because their "like unto an amoeba" beings are still tight-assed 19th Century people to the eyes of modern readers.

In fact, it's often difficult to read for this reason, of all things…the Bible…and not come away with the idea that God is a cruel and vindictive bully. But then, what do you expect from Bronze Age nomadic cultures?

In "Last and First Men," sometimes this perspective works and sometimes it doesn't. It was written at an interesting time in history, when the Western neurosis about sex was obvious for what it was and actually could be talked about. A gigantic world war between France and Britain for instance, began again when a beautiful young Princess was the victim of an airplane accident, which brought from the British a cry for revenge against the totally innocent French. In essence, the sensationalist press used sexual imagery to create fear and a desire for aggression and revenge, in much the same way "missing white women" are overhyped in Fox News and other media.

The idea this kind of primitive sexual fascination is a really a primeval rage trigger-instinct would never have occurred to a Victorian mind, and is often invisible to easily provoked people today; it does sound like an observation a more intelligent being from the distant future would make.

Then again, there was the usual Brit science fiction stuff about how a world dominated by Americans (by 1932 a foregone conclusion) would be awful, cultureless and money-mad. This is a British Isles prejudice as petty as their nursery-hatred of Catholics, which I can't imagine any superior mind from the future ever subscribing to – it's bleed over into the character from the author, the literary equivalent of spotting a zipper in a monster movie.

Judging by the writings of their intellectual class across the political spectrum from Tory V.S. Naipaul or liberal Roy Arundhati to C.S. Lewis (whose petty fixations and snipings at the American education system prove what I've always thought: he was an innovative storyteller but a very limited mind), no other nation hates America more, and yet no other nation is considered a close American bosom buddy despite the fact the Brits had one of the evilest empires in history, invented the concentration camp (what, you think it was the Germans?), and in their front and center writings available in public for anyone to read, hate us like poison actively to this day in a way that makes the endearingly contrarian French mind's prejudices look downright innocent in comparison. Maybe those limey bastards are right: Americans don't really read much, or else we'd know how much they loathe us.

On the other hand, a few other details are so forward thinking it's almost shocking to imagine this book was written in 1932. For instance, the ultimate disaster that destroys our technical civilization is the end of fossil fuels. Also, he laughed at the idea World War I would be the "war to end all wars," and even called it one of the least destructive of the later conflicts, put forth a scenario where Americans and Chinese dueled over world influence, and in the days before the atomic bomb, put forth the idea of a superweapon that would destroy all mankind. And all that's in the early chapters dealing with us, the First Men.

Some of the alien-minded human races in the distant future had incredibly inhuman cultures and thought-processes. For instance, the Second Men were doomed by a sort of existential crisis and lack of confidence that honestly, I actually don't even understand.

The most fascinating of the human species - other than the childlike Flying Men and their tragic final fate at the hands of their more pragmatic, industrialist-minded yet bitter and envious brethren – was possibly the Eighteenth Men, or the Last Men, who look not like one race, but many, and have an incredible diversity of appearance.

We are both more human and more animal. The primitive explorer might be more readily impressed by our animality than our humanity, so much of our humanity would lie beyond his grasp. He would perhaps at first regard us as a degraded type. He would call us faun-like, and in particular cases, ape-like, bear-like, ox-like, marsupial, or elephantine.

Moreover, if our observer were himself at all sensitive to facial expression, he would come to recognize in every one of our innumerable physiognomic types an indescribable but distinctively human look, the visible sign of that inward and spiritual grace which is not wholly absent from his own species. He would perhaps say, "These men that are beasts are surely gods also." He would be reminded of those old Egyptian deities with animal heads.

I wonder if the idea of the Last Men possibly inspired Stan Lee and Jack Kirby's the Inhumans from Fantastic Four. After all, both read widely and it is possible to see a lot of early 20th Century science fiction influences in them.

Like John Carter of Mars, this 1932 novel is a book of incredible influence to early generations of science fiction writers and is due anyday to be rediscovered. Though some could be accused of missing the point, like C.S. Lewis, who loved this book but felt the need to talk back to it with "Out of the Silent Planet." Lewis even called the book Satanic – a laughably embarrassing insult for a 20th Century person to slug, right up there with accusing someone of being a witch.

In a part of the book that Lewis did not like, the Fifth Men – a race of moral and intellectual supermen – discover the earth will be rendered uninhabitable, and so they construct a plan to move to Venus. The trouble is that Venus already has an aquatic intelligent inhabited race who fight against the human attempt to make it habitable, as that would be the death of them. Therefore, in a choice prompted by survival, the extremely moral Fifth Men are responsible for the crime of exterminating an entire intelligent race, a black deed that weighs on their guilty consciences.

It was an awful situation – extermination or survival - especially for a race as enlightened as the Fifth Men, and a crime that Stapledon presents without judgment or comment. It was far from presented to the audience as a "correct" course of action, but a bad situation. Nowhere in the book was it presented as a "good" thing to do.

This is a common mistake made by people that choose to police our culture who have no understanding of how art works. They're so used to moral judgment they assume that merely by having something in a story the creators must be in favor of it. A story with violence? They must be gorehounds. A story with rape? The creators must be sickos that like violence against women!

I'm looking squarely at you, Gail Simone. You have great storytelling gifts and your comics are a delight, but your "Women in Refrigerators" site (to which I am not linking because that site does not deserve even any miniscule traffic I can create) is pointlessly incendiary, and presented out of context, all this so-called violence is as meaningless as mentioning the existence of violence or sex in movies. Context tells us whether sex is drama or pornography.

C.S. Lewis was against genocide motivated by greed, eh? Well, I'm sure he had plenty to say, then, about the artificial famines created in India which killed millions in times of plenty to drive up the cost of British grain, or the entire history of abused Ireland, or the hundreds of thousands of Dinka killed to clear settler rights in Kenya, right? No? Didn't say a peep? Well, that's the Brits for you – buttinsky critics of every empire except their own, which ironically (or perhaps predictably) is the worst one of all.

In Out of the Silent Planet, an overly ambitious scientist wants to save the human race by killing all the Martians and settling humans on Mars. The book portrays him as not a very nice person and tries to condemn this viewpoint – except it's not one that Stapledon had!

Sheesh, Lou. You gotta read what the guy says. And that's advice for everybody else. This book is definitely worth reading.

Saturday, August 13, 2011

Zeroids: the Return

Moonstone Comics, a printer that specializes in books based on pulpy pop culture artifacts like Buckaroo Banzai, the Captain Action toy line, and Lee Falk's Phantom, are right now publishing a comic based on the robot toy line the Zeroids.

The Zeroids were basically early 1960s predecessors of the Transformers. If the Transfomers had versions on Earth-2, this is what they would look like. And from the sound of things, the Zeroids were even cooler as toys, with vehicles that came right with the figure, crazy-powerful interior motors, magnetic power-actions, and one even has an interior set of wires and batteries to make a playset light up.

What's strange is that the Moonstone Zeroids comic basically follows the blueprint of the Michael Bay Transformers movie, which might as well be called "People Who Know Transformers," with the main characters being a couple of military guys and Megan Fox. In the case of Zeroids this is a little more okay, since while Transformers was wonderfully peopled to the point there's no excuse for pointless human characters, there's a lot less for Zeroids to work with, a barely filmable toy "line" that has a huge gaping deficiency: no real villains.

I never understood why you can't have the robots be the main characters. Children have an instinctive sympathy with unusual creatures. There was a story where C.S. Lewis got a letter where a concerned mother told him her son preferred Narnia's Lion-Jesus Aslan over the actual Jesus. C.S. Lewis's response was surprisingly rational, along the lines of "of course he does, that's how the minds of little boys work." The logic behind emphasizing human characters is the same mistake that people make when they put little kids in adventure stories: "in order to appeal to little kids we have to have little kids in the story."

The main human hero is basically Megan Fox in every way: a sorority girl who is the daughter of the scientist who originally built the Zeroids. This is unsurprising. If they ever do a remake of the caveman movie 1,000,000 BC, you can bet the main character will be a woman since the only thing anybody remembers about the Hammer film is that Raquel Welch was in it...despite the fact she doesn't really do anything and was a supporting character.

As an aside, I don't actually have a problem with Megan Fox, who was overexposed to the point of annoyance, but was not really a terrible person or actress. Yeah, she didn't turn out a great performance in those movies, but what did you idiots expect? Oscar-caliber performances produced by that well-known actor's director, Michael Bay?

The comic Zeroids: the Return basically duplicates the Michael Bay school of film-making down to very unusual and idiosyncratic elements like uncomfortable race-humor that ends up being borderline racist itself. The book is trying to sell itself on camp, including a zombie invasion (something I doubt was a part of the original toyline). I appreciate it is self-aware enough to understand a book like this works by nostalgia, so get as nostalgic and campy and don't take yourself too seriously. You can either be campy or play it straight, not both, and certainly not a muddled mixture of both like the Bay movies, and I doubt robots that look like this would lend themselves to being played entirely straight.

Because of the emphasis on the human characters and the disaster movie elements, I wouldn't recommend Zeroids: the Return unless you really love the toys and were waiting for something to be done with them like manna from heaven. Still, one thing did interest me: a Zeroids-website owner cropped every picture of the comic cover to exclude the sexy girl, a hilarious act of Calvinist prudery that defies parody.

Thursday, August 11, 2011

Sincerity as a Marketable Product

"The secret of acting is sincerity. If you can fake that, you've got it made." - George Burns

Pop quiz! What is the one thing you probably know about Jewel?

Bzzt! Time's up. The answer is "while she was a struggling musician from Alaska she lived in her van."

Interesting, but living in your car is practically universal among musicians: Kurt Cobain, the founding members of Aerosmith, Kelly Clarkson and Eartha Kitt all did the same thing. In fact, musicians having it rough is the subject of a whole genre of jokes.

Q: What do you call a drummer with no girlfriend?
A: Homeless.

Yet with Jewel all you hear about over and over is how she lived in a van, which is really not that special or distinguishing as far as musicians go. By Jove! It's almost as if…call me crazy here…Jewel's van days are used as a part of her image, to make her sound sincere and arty.

Jewel, who proved with her poetry she's about as deep and arty as a pizza box, is one of the more offensive examples of a very offensive trend that suckers otherwise smart people: the persona packaged, sold and marketed of an authentic artist who isn't packaged, sold or marketed. I don't know what offends me more: this kind of hypocritical doublethink or the fact people fall for this kind of obvious fraud.

Paul Giamatti

Jenny: "Everything about you is a lie."
Neville Sinclair: "It wasn't lies, it was acting."
- The Rocketeer (1991)

Paul Giamatti is the ultimate example of what I mean. If you like Paul Giamatti because he is a regular guy and everyman actor as opposed to some blow-dried, image-centered and manufactured Hollywood phony…well, I hate to say it, hipsters, but you've been had! I mean it, you've been tricked!

Sincerity? "Regular guy?" Give me a break! Blue blood Paul Giamatti is as much a "regular guy" as George W. Bush, a scion of privilege, with a Dad that was a former commissioner of Major League Baseball.

What I find so offensive and hateful about Paul Giamatti is, not that his success was made possible by wealth and family connections. After all, success in life is about who you know, and I am fine with that and most grownup adults are fine with that. Only lobotomized permanent children like libertarians believe the world is a meritocracy all the time. As a counterpoint to Giamatti, take Sigourney Weaver, who in addition to her incredible talent and obvious professionalism, came from a wealthy showbiz family with her Dad as a former president of NBC who created the Tonight Show.

But Sigourney has never lied to the public and tried to be anything else; she has never created a fake Giamatti image and she revels in her obvious sophistication. She's proud of being Ivy League, with shout outs to Stanford in everything she does. And good for her, I say.

Rather, what I hate about Giamatti is his fandom is based on bamboozling the public into thinking blue-blood Giamatti is a regular working "real" schlub audiences can identify with who achieved in spite of Hollywood's shallow image and marketing machine, when he is in fact a pure creation of that image and marketing machine. He's the George W. Bush of movies. And like Bush, his cult of personality is centered around the worst attributes and vices of the public.

Envy and Spite at Work

There's the factor of envy and spite. Paul Giamatti is not handsome in the traditional, classical sense (although I've found no shortage of women that wouldn't want to get with him), so men aren't threatened by him. Remember how all the women of America hated Baywatch all through the 1990s?

This brings to mind another, crucial question. Who is manufactured? Who is sincere?

When I was a lot less self-aware and honest with myself than I am today, I found myself asking a more mature friend why I hated Leonardo di Caprio so much.

His response?

"You know exactly why. You just want a rational explanation."

To show the reasons people have for liking Paul Giamatti are totally illegitimate, based on a phony image, and utterly hypocritical, try this exercise. Why do you hate Justin Bieber so much?

Now, I'm not a fan of the Bieb since I'm hardly the target audience of his music and stage shows, but consider this. Bieber came from absolutely nothing, an unconnected non-showbiz family in Canada. He achieved fame as just another kid making videos on the internet, and he didn't get attention through slick advertising or marketing but by a sincere and spontaneous outpouring of viral support and attention.

If you can think of a beginning that's more Indie, I'd love to hear it, yet the hardworking Bieber is a "phony" because he arouses spite and envy the way the blowdried Leo di Caprio did before him, whereas rich kid Paul "Can I be an actor now, Daddy?" Giamatti, who really is a manufactured product and insincere phony, gets to be down to earth and authentic. The hypocrisy and spite of it all makes me absolutely sick.

You might say it's a matter of talent, but I don't think so. Caprio was obviously a gifted young actor even back in the day even if he did go "full retard" in Gilbert Grape, and look what happened.

Dane Cook is terminally unfunny and horrible, but you know, there are bushelfulls on bushelfulls of annoying stand-up comics – in fact, "obnoxious stand up comic" is practically a redundancy. Why is he singled out for hate? At the risk of pointing out the obvious, the reason is because he's good looking and confident in his delivery. Stand up comics, even the women (especially the women!), have to be slouchy, slobbish and have a sense of humor that is self-deprecating.

The power of envy and spite goes beyond showbusiness into the realm of politics. Ask yourself this: when was the last time someone with military experience or decoration beat a draft dodger or civilian in a presidential election? I'm just saying: decorated World War II heroes like George Bush Sr. and Bob Dole lost against dodger Clinton, and medal-wearing, heroic Vietnam vets like Al Gore, John Kerry and John McCain lost out to Ivy League AWOL civvies. The truth is, the majority of the American population have never been in the military and because of their own cowardice, resent vets for their service. I figured it was unwise of Kerry and McCain to trumpet their own record because it would only make the cowardly masses hate them more, and I was proven right in a way that can't really be argued with.

The Hipster Contrarian's Quest for "Authenticity"

The other factor at work, other than spite, is the hipster fascination with "authenticity." Here's a good working definition of indie music that just might apply to indie film, too. Indie music is whatever the mainstream doesn't like. Seriously, that's it. Remember former hipster fave Death Cab for Cutie, and how everyone talked about how they "sold out" when they were picked up by a big label, their sound was never the same? This is an especially ludicrous claim because every Death Cab for Cutie album sounds identical!

As Dr. David Thorpe put it:

"Upon the release of 2005's Plans, DCFC were immediately disavowed as sellouts by the same kids who'd called them rock's saviours the previous year. This of course is not unusual for indie culture, but often there is at least some legitimate complaint, as slick new producers and hot-shit session musicians are brought in to fag up a band's sound just enough so some 17-yr-old mall troll will buy the cd for his sister's birthday. But with Death Cab, indie culture's back-turning rings exactly like the pompous, exclusivist whining it is--because every Death Cab record is exactly the same."

In short, Death Cab didn't change one iota but their authenticity-obsessed and insecure hipster fans abandoned 'em because they became commercial and popular.

I'm reminded of this attitude a lot because Super 8, a Spielberg-inspired romp is raking in oodles of dough at the box office this summer, so it's now time for insufferable film pedants and contrarians everywhere to beat the deadest of all dead horses, how Spielberg and Lucas and William Friedkin and others are responsible for an "infantilization of cinema," as ghoulish bonershrinking harpy Pauline Kael put it years ago back when anyone listened to her.

In the contrarian mind of the film pedant, Lucas and Spielberg are guilty of the greatest crime imaginable: namely, they are successful.

Seriously, at the end of the day, that's what it is: resentment they made movies mass audiences love.

It's hard to imagine now, but there was a time when even oddball director David Lynch made blockbusters. David Lynch's Elephant Man was a bona-fide hit, and George Lucas even approached Lynch to direct Return of the Jedi. Lynch's Dune bombed so badly that era of his career came to an end. Lynch never did blockbusters, but instead chose to do gonzo, surreal pictures like Blue Velvet later on. Many of those films were truly great, and more power to him.

Lynch and Spielberg both made the kinds of movies they wanted to do. The only difference is that Spielberg's movies made hundreds of millions of dollars. Why should Spielberg's success be held against him, especially since he never "sold out" or tried to be desperately popular? This is undeniably true since Spielberg's always done the same kind of thing he's always done.

What can we learn from all this?

The quest or "authenticity" and hatred of image and "Hollywood" is a phantom, ephemeral chimera that goes nowhere, an intellectual dead-end that leads to nothing except pointless contrarianism. It also makes a person vulnerable to being tricked by frauds like Neville Paul Sinclair Giamatti. After all, the more you think you can't be manipulated by marketing, the more likely you are to be unaware of how it works and therefore vulnerable to manipulation by marketing.

One day, Paul Giamatti will steal that darned rocket pack, though!

Monday, August 8, 2011

8-Bit Video Game Reviews: "The Krion Conquest"

The Krion Conquest is one of the most intriguingly unique games I've played, which is ironic because the only thing any reviewer ever says about it is that it is a Mega Man rip-off. Well, Krion Conquest was obviously based on the engine of Mega Man…but isn't that in and of itself pretty unique? A whole 8-Bit library could be filled with nothing but Super Mario Bros. and Contra rip-off platformers, but there are other games nobody ever borrowed from, so it's interesting to encounter one that uses similar mechanics. Remember Battle for Olympus, which was a gameplay copy of, of all things, the odd one out of the Zelda series, the side-scroller Zelda 2: the Adventure of Link? If you rip off something nobody ever rips off, that's an act of creativity in and of itself.

First things first: you play a female. In the eight-bit era. Wow.

I'm straining my brain and I can't think of any other game with a female playable character at the time, except maybe the bizarre "Athena." The main character, as seen in the gorgeous box art, is a foxy female witch.

The box art sold her as some curvaceous 1940's Betty Page type, which is odd because the actual game art shows her as some anime creature. This goes back to the days when Japanime seemed weird and unwelcome as opposed to being a selling point because it's "different" and "exotic," like French cinema.

Me, I've always been a red-blooded, meat-eating American, and if there's one thing I can't stand, it's the conventions of Japanese cartoons and video games, with androgynous heroes, talking rabbit sidekicks, and fifteen year old, flat-assed schoolgirls. So the way I see it, bring on Witch Betty Page!

The difference between Krion Conquest and Mega Man is like the difference between teaching someone to drive and getting hit by a car. The same ingredients are there in both cases (a car, wheels, a road, etc.) but they're all doing something totally different.

In Krion Conquest, unlike Mega Man, you begin play with all your weapons. What does that mean? If you only take away one thing from this review it is this: the game is not a traditional platformer like Mega Man or Super Mario where you run, dodge jump and shoot, but rather, you have to keep your thinking cap on because the game actively requires you to think about how to use your different powers.

That is why I find Krion Conquest so interesting: you don't just run and jump, but you have to actively use your brain and defeat enemies like a puzzle game. No critics of the game ever mention this, which is what prompted me to write this review: one of the most unique things about this gameplay go totally unmentioned. In this regard it's a predecessor of thinking games like Portal.

I wish more games like The Krion Conquest had been made: action games that aren't just spaceship-shoot-laser but also require some mental adroitness.

Take for instance this scene. There's an enemy in a pit up there you can't jump and reach, but he's quite capable of dropping bombs on you below. How do you get him? You have to perform a bit of billiard-ball trigonometry with a bouncing weapon, which works not unlike Captain America's rebounding shield.

There are other occasions where you have to cross distance on a broomstick, one of your many powers. A lot of critics of the game have slammed it because the control on the broomstick is so bad, you're better of setting the controller down and making it move by shouting bad language at your Nintendo. Well, yeah! The control on the broomstick is supposed to be hard, because that's part of the point of the broomstick, as a part of the puzzle-solving element of the game: you're supposed to know where to go in advance and place your broomstick in the perfect spot.

The point of this game is patience and using the right power at the right time. To that end, you approach most screens in a place of safety so you can look over the obstacles and come up with a strategy. Take for instance, this scenario here. This enemy shoots right at you. You should have the Shield Barrier charged immediately, so the instant you land you can have it charged, then shoot behind the barrier in total safety.

When it comes to control, Krion Conquest is something of an improvement over Mega Man in one crucial respect: you can shoot up. This isn't a little thing. Enemies that are impossible in the Mega Man games, like the diving helicopter-guys in the Cut Man stage, are easily dispatched here because you can shoot up.

In fairness, there are some powers that just don't come up at all. The Freeze ability requires you to charge the weapon up, and only freezes the enemy in place. There is literally no scenario in the game where this comes in handy. Likewise, the Fire power is a "kill everything on screen" ability, which has the terrible side effect of stealing a third of your life. In a grueling Mega Man style game where every level is an endurance test, this is never a smart idea.

I hear Krion Conquest had an even more unique and un-Mega Man-esque trait that was ultimately taken out of the American version of the game, a series of cutscenes in between levels. I would have loved to see this and I'm sorry it was removed! For one thing, while cutscenes are common today, this was absolutely unheard of in the 8-Bit era outside of the Ninja Gaiden games, where the cut scenes between levels turned the game into a big story. I understand the foreign versions of the game have cutscenes and I would very much like to see them restored to the game at some future date.

From what little we see, the game is set in the astounding futuristic year 1999. Whoa! Those were heady days, back in 1999, what with the the Euro, Woodstock '99, Spongebob Squarepants...though with the boy bands, Pokemon craze, and Star Wars: Episode I, weren't things on earth bad enough without robot invaders?

All in all, Krion Conquest and Mega Man are similar in the sense that all human beings are similar…what is important and what ultimately truly matters are the unique, distinctive differences.